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Nathan’s review of A Prelude to Ashes by Thiago Abdalla.

Late last year I read the first book in the Avarin series, A Touch of Light, after it became a finalist in the SPFBO 8 competition. This was before I started reviewing books, but my quick thoughts were that it was a really solid epic fantasy read. There were definitely some issues I had with the book (mostly that the learning curve for the worldbuilding was a bit too steep, and that I didn’t enjoy all of the POV character’s story arcs equally), but it definitely made me excited to keep reading!

Since the second book in the series (A Shade of Madness) is about to be published soon, I thought that this was the perfect time to dip my toes back in the water and read A Prelude to Ashes, a short novella that explores one of the POV characters from A Touch of Light (Adrian) about 100 years before the events of that book.

I have read again and again that many readers thought that A Prelude to Ashes was a better introduction to Thiago Abdalla’s world than A Touch of Light. While I can see where they are coming from (because as I mentioned earlier, the learning curve of A Touch of Light is pretty harsh, albeit rewarding), I actually disagree and would encourage readers to read the series in publication order. There are a few reasons for why I think this:

First, the worldbuilding in A Prelude to Ashes isn’t really any easier. While it is a bit less overwhelming because you are only following one major storyline instead of three, there are still a bunch of different names, places, nations, and factions thrown at you all at once. And, because of the limited page number here, they aren’t nearly as well developed as they are in A Touch of Light. This isn’t’ a criticism of Abdalla’s writing here; the world in this novella comes alive through its politics, histories, ideologies, cosmologies, and depth – but might feel a bit more dim without the context of the first volume in the series.

Second, if you read Prelude first than you don’t have the complex interactions that make the actions of Adrian and Myrra so powerful and profound here. Starting here, without knowing the tragic outcome and how it fuels Adrian’s actions in A Touch of Light diminishes this novella. I was so happy to finally get to really meet Myrra in this novella and really get a chance to experience the star-crossed romance of characters that I have already gotten to know. I can only imagine that reading this without that context only steals some of the energy of their arc in this novella.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly to me as a reader, is that this novella as it stands alone falls into the trap that a lot of epic fantasies do – that of naturalizing and creating the “Other”, particularly of brown-skinned peoples and characters. I want to make it clear that I am not criticizing Abdall here. He does a great job in A Touch of Light of showing all sides of the conflict and really humanizing the peoples and cultures that populate the world he has created. However, as A Prelude is more contained and only follows one perspective, this intense Othering occurs without the context given to the reader in A Touch of Light. Alone, A Prelude to Ashes turns the non-western coded southern clan peoples into uncivilized, war-mongering, and brutal political and military pawns in the fight of the European-coded nations. We know from A Touch of Light that the history, culture, and worldviews of these clans is much more nuanced than this, but we just don’t get this perspective in A Prelude to Ashes. So, again, reading this prequel novella second really provides the necessary context to not fall into the epic fantasy “Othering” trap.

While I have given reasons here for not starting with A Prelude to Ashes, you really cannot go wrong with Abdalla’s world and writing. This novella continues Abdalla’s real knack for imbuing a fictional world with so much depth that you forget its fictional. If you just want a little taste of what Avarin has to offer, start here. But if you are an epic fantasy lover ready for the plunge, go buy a copy of A Touch of Light first and then come back here to get some more backstory on Adrian and Myrra.

Concluding Thoughts: Abdalla has written a wonderful and short backstory for two great characters from A Touch of Light. Abdalla expertly weaves complex politics, emotional character stakes, and epic battles, while also giving little twists and tastes of what is to come later in the series, in a short, compact package. A Touch of Light fans and newbies both shouldn’t skip this one!

 

Thank you for reading my review of A Prelude to Ashes!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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